A video of a young woman stopping traffic and screaming at taxi cabs in the middle of a busy Manhattan street went viral a few weeks ago. Cell phone cameras recorded her yelling, “Sorry, I forgot you!” as she kicked at car doors that slowly passed around her. She’s fun to watch; pretty and sort of graceful, dancing around the cars as if she’s dodging waves on the beach. In her bleached blonde bob and skinny jeans, she takes breaks from her traffic dodging to strike pinup girl poses for the cell phone cameras. One of the top comments on YouTube read, “Either she’s a mental patient or a performance artist.”
The comment seems to imply that when someone is acting strangely in public, they are either extremely aware of themselves, resembling performers, or extremely unaware, consumed by the force of a breakdown. It’s easy to find examples of less appealing presentations of emotional breakdowns on YouTube, maybe even easier than it is to find recorded public displays of performance art. YouTube reframes private moments of suffering for public viewing, and performance art aims for something similar: it captures and examines live events we might otherwise look away from.
Of course, there are performative elements in the presentation of this woman’s breakdown, but that doesn’t mean she wasn’t consumed by it. This is exactly the line that many performance artists aim to blur. If it’s a performance, is it necessarily not a real breakdown? Human suffering, by nature, sneaks up on us, but if we want to look at it closely, make art about it and examine it, we plan it.
In 1991, New York artist William Pope L. dressed up in an expensive suit and, while holding a potted plant in one hand, attempted to slither on his belly across the city. He began to organize group crawls, inviting others to “give up their verticality” if only for a moment, and to participate in this experience in order to learn something. He says, “I believe art re-ritualizes the everyday to reveal something fresh about our lives.” In 1981, French artist Sophie Calle followed unsuspecting strangers around Paris and created a performance piece out of it. This wasn’t originally intended as art, she claims, but more of an exercise in getting to know a place (she’d just returned to Paris after several years living abroad, didn’t know anyone, and decided to follow strangers as a way to newly acquaint herself with a city that had once been too familiar).
I’d recently moved to New York when I read about her work, and my reaction was, I should try that. I liked this idea of “re-ritualizing the every day.” If a performance is just as much an exercise or a ritual as it is art, I wondered would happen if I mimicked the act myself, minus an audience.
“Establishing rules and following them is restful,” is how Calle put it. “If you follow someone, you don’t have to wonder where you’re going to eat. They take you to their restaurant. The choice is made for you.” I was only brave enough to follow a few strangers on foot, and never more than a few blocks. Once, I followed a small man carrying a pink pastry box through an unfamiliar neighborhood and became nervous when I thought I saw him look back at me. My brief following ritual ended when he reached into his pocket and I convinced myself he was reaching for a weapon. I realized that this was an exercise in not only losing your way, but of losing control. It was not just about getting to know a place, but about handing your authority over to an oblivious stranger. One would typically think of the stalker (me) as the perpetrator, and the stalked as the victim, but in Calle’s version, the stalked becomes an unknowing dictator of the stalkers’ movements.
At performance artist Clifford Owens’group show, Gifted and Talented, Owens opened by asking, “Who here is a performance artist?” I was sitting with a small audience on the floor of Third Streaming Gallery in SoHo on a hot night in early September as performers, many of whom were Owens’s students from Yale School of Art and other prestigious programs, walked among us. The thought crossed my mind that this was a rhetorical question—We are all performing all the time!—would be our resounding answer, and I readied my hand to go up along with every hand in the crowd. The audience around me looked like creative people who might have, at some point, considered that even an audience can be a performance. As it turned out, no one raised their hand.
After the first piece, in which a man slowly threatened to stab himself in the stomach, but stabbed and served a cheesecake instead, Owens mentioned that the artist’s parents were in the audience. We turned to them and clapped as they smiled and waved. It seemed fitting that this resembled a small performance between acts, by audience members, in the roles of mother and father. The performance that followed was a woman singing the Star-Spangled Banner while she slowly lifted her dress to reveal that she was penetrating herself with a red, white, and blue popsicle. Colors dripped down the insides of her legs to form a purple pool on the white cardboard square below her. Next, a naked man stabbed his fingers with needles and sat quietly as he projected an image onto the wall of the blood dripping down his palm.
In the last performance, a woman superglued her mouth shut and walked slowly among us as if she were choosing a victim. She kneeled to kiss random audience members as the rest of us waited on the floor around her. Suddenly she was interrupted by a voice that yelled, “Call 911!”
The audience hesitated for a moment, not sure if this was still part of the show. Someone else yelled, “This is real!” The father we’d met earlier had collapsed. We clumsily stood up to shrink against a wall, and I felt ashamed of our collective moment of hesitation. We watched as someone ran to get him ice, and someone else called an ambulance. I told the friends I’d come with that I thought we should leave. Only minutes ago we’d seen another man stab himself with needles. I’d been willing to watch the planned pain, but now this was personal, never meant for examination.
What was the difference? Intention or preparation seemed like too easy answers. The man with the needles had given us permission to watch him bleed, next to another man whose pain surprised us, and, also, surprised himself. Still, the scabs on the performers’ fingers will be real and probably painful for the next few days regardless of where he goes and who watches.
When we enter a performance space, we expect a kind of controlled happening; a planned performance. Of course, we never expect an emergency wherever we are, but in performance art, we are prepared to be shocked. The man with the needles really did stab himself, and we agreed to watch. Then when the truly unexpected happened, was it reality that we snapped back to? As we stood awkwardly against the wall, we knew the man who’d fainted was going to be okay. He was talking, drinking water, and smiling graciously. I think what troubled me was that, somehow, entering a performance space meant that I left certain emotions outside. My reactions to pain, sex, and exposed bodies were different here, because the rules of performance art are different. How and why does this change back when real reality comes in?
I remembered reading (as I tried to shrug this thought away) that during the Aurora theater shooting, members of the audience thought for a moment that the violence was part of the show. Ann Hornaday at The Washington Post wrote, “The possibility that there was a lag time until people realized that the bullets in Theater 9 were real is consistent with research on how our brains process film…Whereas the dominant theory of film perception once assumed that the cinematic experience tapped into a unique set of skills, many researchers now believe that we use the same skills to understand both film and reality.” What skills are we using to understand performance art, when performance art is more real than film, but less real than reality? Of course what happened in Gifted and Talented was not an emergency like the tragedy in Aurora. The man was able to walk down the stairs to the ambulance (which was only a precaution) on his own, while the remaining audience members cheered him on. Isperformance art less real than reality, merely because a show has been planned and takes place on a stage? What if there is no stage?
When Sophie Calle followed strangers, she imposed her performance, or her fiction, upon a very real public space. The way that public space reacted to her was also part of the art, however unplanned. A performance not going according to plan doesn’t necessarily render it unsuccessful. The reaction is part of the art. Calle has created other pieces that resemble quirky personal rituals rather than art: She worked as a chambermaid in a hotel where she took pictures of the messes guests left behind and imagined their identities based on their belongings; in response to a painful breakup, she interviewed people about the most painful moments of their lives; she invited strangers to sleep in her bed while she observed them and took notes; she set up a bed on top of the Eiffel Tower while strangers lined up to tell her stories. She inserted her own life into public spaces; ultimately, whether or not she was performing became irrelevant. These were performances, but it was also her real life.
Shortly after the Gifted and Talented show, I walked by a man in a subway station who was lying face down on the floor, moving his hands as if he were swimming, and grinding his hips suggestively into the ground. “Art,” is what flashed through my mind, while I walked by with the other commuters, and then I felt immediately ashamed for thinking that this man’s possible mental illness could be a performance for my viewing. But who am I to even call him mentally ill? Performance art pushes us to question the natural reactions we have to interruptions of common spaces. It isolates something we may, without even thinking of it, choose to look away from, and tells us, Go ahead, look.Ignore the way you would act if this were merely someone you saw on the street. Then when someone goes and does it on the street, we question our impulses. We are unsure in a new and interesting way.
I’ve noticed that people often ask, “Why is this art?” with incredulity rather than curiosity when facing hard-to-access conceptual pieces. Calle, again: “I no longer ask myself what I’m doing, and I’m not obsessed with whether it really is art. For me, it’s a game; it’s the critics’ decision to call it art.” Like Calle, I’m tempted to disregard this categorization all together, if only momentarily. It is important to acknowledge our initial urge to reject a piece of art that makes us uncomfortable or that perhaps we can’t relate to, but we should also allow for a spectrum of responses to take place. Regarding an artist who follows strangers; another who crawls on the street in a business suit; or one who injures his own body on a stage: Why is this art? is a good question, but we shouldn’t stop there:
What does it mean for someone to do this to themselves? What would happen to me if this were my reality? What does it mean to look someone in the eye and to hold that gaze? What is it like to be bleeding and vulnerable in front of a crowd? What happens when we are lost in our own city? If we witness suffering in real life: How can we be more than idle bystanders? How can we effectively help? The evocation of these questions may not necessarily make something art, but asking them helps us develop attention to nuance, and vigilance for the unexpected.
Dale Megan Healey’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Pequin, Prick of the Spindle, DIAGRAM and elsewhere.